We’re alway on the hunt for quirky experiences on our travels. As nomadic pet sitters, if we can combine this with our love of animals then all the better! Whilst road tripping around Scotland, we found a unique experience in the heart of the Cairngorms – visiting the Cairngorm reindeer herd! We learnt so much about the history of how the reindeer came to live here, as well as how they are cared for now, and we even got to feed the herd their breakfast! Read on for everything you need to know about this fantastic experience.

Where is the Cairngorm reindeer herd?

The Reindeer Centre is situated in Glenmore Forest Park, near Aviemore. The reindeer themselves are free-ranging on the mountains! Head to the Centre to find more information about the reindeer, though you won’t be able to enter their enclosure unless you book a guided hill trip. We’d highly recommend doing this in order to see the reindeer up close, learn more about them, and have the chance to hand-feed them! See the map below for directions by car or visit the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd website for up-to-date information about arriving by public transport.

Why are there reindeer in the Cairngorms?

There has been a herd of reindeer living in the Cairngorms National Park since 1952. Mikel Utsi, a Swedish Sami, travelled to Scotland with his wife Dr. Ethel Lindgren in 1947, and the landscape reminded him of his homeland. The plentiful species of tree lichens in particular, so similar to those found in Sweden, inspired Utsi to believe reindeer could thrive in the mountains here as lichen is their chief source of food. The couple later brought a herd of Swedish mountain reindeer to the Cairngorms, re-introducing reindeer to Scotland for the first time in 800 years.

The unique qualities of the Cairngorms provide the perfect environment for the herd – reindeer are adept at finding their own food in the wild, are accustomed to colder temperatures, and require no shelter. Due to climate change over the centuries, the Cairngorms are the only place left in the UK this is able to support reindeer, and the herd here are Britain’s only free-ranging reindeer herd. The herd is permitted to graze on over 10,000 acres of land on the mountainside and hill trips to visit the reindeer have been a daily occurrence since the late 1960’s. Today, the herd is managed by a couple that began as Mikel Utsi’s assistant herders in 1978, and they now manage 150 reindeer!

What to expect

It is possible to hike the mountain trails and view the herd by yourself, though you won’t be able to enter their enclosures, and it’s not guaranteed that they’ll be in there as they are free-ranging! For a cost-effective way to see some of the reindeer up close, you can book a paddock visit to learn more about them though, again, you won’t be able to enter the enclosure. We’d highly recommend booking the slightly more costly hill trip, as we did, to spend time walking amongst the reindeer and getting the opportunity to feed them and take photos next to them!

Our visit began by checking in at the Reindeer Centre, which all guests must do at least 20 minutes before the start time of the hill trip. This allows enough time to check in, collect your tickets, and drive to the meeting point for the trip – for us this was only a 3 minute drive, though the meeting location changes depending on the time of year as the guides use different trails for different seasons. Once at the meeting spot, our guide gave us a brief overview of the terrain on our hike ahead and explained that we’d be walking at a pace that all guests could maintain. For us this felt quite slow, as we’re used to pounding our way up mountains! But it was good for us to walk at a deliberately slower pace so we could take in our surroundings as we hiked the 30 minute trail to the reindeer enclosure.

Once at the enclosure, another guide joined us to give more information about the herd before we entered the paddock. She explained that, while we would have the opportunity to feed the herd, we must not touch or stroke the reindeer at any time. This used to be something that visitors could enjoy, but stopped during the pandemic, and our guides explained that the reindeer weren’t keen on being petted anyway! We passed through tall metal gates to enter the enclosure where most of the herd had already gathered around upon seeing us! We then walked from the top of the hill to the bottom, while the herd surrounded us and walked by our sides – a magical start to our experience. Our guides knew every single reindeer by name, and explained how their names are chosen – every year there is a new theme, so when young are born they will be given names that relate to that year’s theme. Previous themes include hats (giving names such as Fez, Sombrero and Trilby), poets and authors (Dr. Seuss, Kipling, Christie) and pop stars (Elvis, Enya, Lulu). The whole time we were listening, the herd were standing inches away from us in amongst all the visitors!

We were then given a handful of cereal-based food supplement to feed to the reindeer! This didn’t take long as the reindeer gobble it down quickly, though they have soft mouths and it felt very gentle! Helpfully, groups of visitors that arrive together are given the feed one at a time, meaning the others in the group can take photos while feeding takes place. This is how we got photos like the ones below!

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Our whole trip took around 2 hours in total. When the feeding part of the tour finishes, it’s up to visitors to decide how long they’d like to stay in the enclosure. Of course, we were there for a while asking the guides questions and taking lots of photos of the herd! It was incredible to just be among the reindeer, and the dramatic landscape of the mountains and trees made for a postcard-perfect backdrop. If you have time after visiting the herd we’d highly recommend spending time at the paddocks back at the Reindeer Centre, as entry to these is included in the price of your hill trip ticket. Here you’ll find a small building packed with tonnes of information about the history of the herd, photographs of the original herders constructing the paddocks, and some family-friendly activities for little ones to enjoy!

Things to know before you book:

  • Wear appropriate clothing. The weather in the Cairngorms can be unpredictable, no matter the time of year! Hiking boots or wellies with good grip are a must for both the hike to the enclosure, and for the paddock. It’s wise to bring a waterproof coat too – for both rain and against the wind on the mountainside. 
  • Be prepared to hike. You must make sure everyone in your group is able to complete a 30-40 minute mountain walk over potentially tough terrain. The trails can be slippery in inclement weather.
  • You can’t pet the reindeer. Everyone wants that cute Instagram snap of them cuddling a reindeer, but the rules on hill trips have changed since the pandemic and the only contact you’ll have with the reindeer is when they eat from your hands during the short feeding session.
  • Bring a camera! Even if you’re visiting by yourself, the guides are on hand to take photos of visitors feeding the herd or just standing by them. It’s definitely worth bringing a camera if you have one so you can get some photos as a souvenir!
  • During Winter, the hill trips are weather-dependant. They also rely on the guides being able to find the herd – the reindeer are fully free-ranging after all! They were only in an enclosure for our morning hill trip as they were yet to have breakfast. If you want to avoid disappointment, we suggest booking in the Spring to ensure you see the herd, and have a better chance of good weather!
  • Support the herd! The shop at the Reindeer Centre is open daily (mid February – December inclusive) and there are dozens of different gifts on display! From toys, books and Sami style keyrings, to antler earrings, leather dram sets and reindeer-motif hats! There’s also the chance to adopt reindeer, with proceeds spent entirely on the upkeep of the herd including their food and welfare in the form of medicines and veterinary care.

Is a visit to the Cairngorm reindeer herd worth it?

In our opinion, yes! It’s a fantastic way for visitors of all ages to spend the morning – you’ll get right up close to the reindeer herd, learn more about their history, and the cost of your ticket directly supports the herd and the running costs of the Centre. In April 2023, we paid £21 each for our adult tickets, though you can find up-to-date prices for the hill trips on their website. For us, the opportunity to hand-feed reindeer was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it was made even more special by the friendly and knowledgable guides, who were on hand throughout our visit to answer the dozens of questions we had! We will say that the hill trips might not be suitable for those with mobility issues – in that case, you can always book a paddock trip to see the reindeer at the Centre without the hike to reach them! 

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